Taleban taking land while talking peace

KABUL - Taleban envoys have been busy over the past month, shuttling from conferences in one world capital to the next, in the biggest rush of activity on the Afghan peace front in years.

They have held informal talks with Afghan technocrats and former rival guerillas, party leaders and lawmakers. And those participants have reported back about how the Taleban delegates have dropped some of the hardline stances that characterised most of their previous statements about political conciliation.

So why, after years of little progress, are the Taleban suddenly so accessible?

One clue may lie in whom the Taleban are not talking to. Despite an all-out effort by President Ashraf Ghani to open direct talks with the Taleban in recent months, the insurgents have yet to meet formally with anyone representing his government.

At the same time, they have been making their biggest territorial gains on the battlefield in years, pressing the pace of fighting and threatening significant districts in many parts of Afghanistan.

Afghan officials and analysts see it as part of a two-pronged strategy by the Taleban: continue to grab territory from a politically weak government, while talking peace with everyone else.

In the course of two months, representatives from the Taleban's political office in Qatar have held informal talks with Afghan factional leaders and lawmakers in Qatar, Dubai and Norway. Another such meeting is scheduled for later this month in Qatar.

During the engagements, the Taleban envoys have proved remarkably accessible and seemingly eager to make a good impression. Around the table, they have taken notes and listened politely.

After official hours, they have split into smaller groups to knock on the hotel room doors of their visitors for casual tea and dinner in an atmosphere described as cordial.

The Taleban's larger demands remain the same - the departure of foreign forces, constitutional changes, the release of prisoners and the removal of the Taleban from the United Nations sanctions list. However, they seem to be shifting on some issues, and beginning to engage in discussions of practical specifics.

Unlike in the past, in recent meetings they have said clearly that they don't "seek to monopolise power", which some participants interpret as a big shift.

They have also seemed more open about basic rights for women, including education and access to work, as long as it happens with what they consider Islamic modesty.

But if the Taleban's immediate aim has seemed to be to make gains while the central government is vulnerable, analysts and participants in the talks have also seen the informal diplomacy as a sign that, in the longer term, the insurgents may be giving up on trying to achieve a complete return to power militarily.

One factor may be the Taleban's own problem with insurgency. Its senior leadership is facing increasing internal challenges from sceptical commanders, a few of whom have gone so far as to declare that they have broken from the Taleban and declared loyalty to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Others believe it will be the pace of the military offensive that determines how soon the insurgents sit down for direct negotiations with the government.

"The fighting this year is decisive," said political analyst Haroun Mir. "The Taleban have presented themselves as a cohesive voice while managing to fragment the other side. It has created a fundamental problem for the Afghan government."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2015, with the headline 'Taleban taking land while talking peace'. Print Edition | Subscribe